Science & Research

Pembroke alums reflect on 1960s STEM experiences

After 50 years, gender gap, paucity of female role models in STEM fields still exist

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
This article is part of the series The XX Factor

This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the history and current state of women’s role in STEM education.

When Jane Connor ’65 began her college experience in the fall of 1961, excited to learn and grow with her peers at the all-female Pembroke College, what set her apart was her intended concentration: mathematics.

“When I came to college, I was the only undergraduate woman in my advanced math class. I was never invited to join the men’s study groups on weekends. I was completely isolated,” she said, adding “In high school, I felt much more encouraged in math. That disappeared in college. You go to class, do your homework and take the test — all in isolation.”

Connor was among the few women at the University who chose to study a discipline in science, technology, engineering and mathematics during the 1960s. And while there has been a large social and logistical effort to close the gender gap in the 50 years since Connor and her peers in the class of 1965 graduated, the disparity continues to divide departments at Brown and across the nation.

A gendered culture

“I’m very sociable and love sharing ideas, but with mathematics, you can’t share around the dinner table unless you’re with other math majors,” Connor said.

Connor said she believed the administration at the time cared about the students, even if administrators weren’t always assertive in reaching out to them. When she received a C in her linear algebra class during her first semester, a dean called to ask her what happened.

But while Connor came to excel in her coursework, faculty members never invited her to do independent studies with them. “I wonder if the male professors found it easier to reach out to male students who they could identify more readily with,” she said. “For me, a source of emptiness at Brown was (that) I don’t remember ever really having a personal relationship with professors outside of class. Having become a university professor myself, I know how much motivation kids need in terms of professional development.”

Elizabeth Glass Loggia ’65, also a math concentrator, said there were only one or two women in each of her math classes, though she was used to this dynamic from high school. “It was really kind of a given,” she said.

Though Loggia became a programmer for IBM while pursuing a JD at Georgetown University at night, she said she noticed the difficulties some of her peers faced finding jobs after college. “Senior year when we were interviewing for jobs, there were fewer opportunities for women. Life was really different then from now. It didn’t personally affect me, but I think that some people felt that they were really limited in where they could go,” she said.

“They could do a lot while they were in college, but there wasn’t much they could do when they graduated. I think some people may have felt that Brown didn’t prepare them,” she said.

Connor eventually lost interest in math because of the unwelcoming environment, and she ultimately found a new passion in psychology.

Connor spent 35 years teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton and is now retired. But before accepting her post at SUNY, she applied to join the faculty of Vanderbilt University and ultimately sued the school for gender discrimination when they didn’t comply with governmental affirmative action policies.

“My husband, a clinical psychologist, had gotten a job at Vanderbilt in the early 70s. At that point, (Vanderbilt) was 200 years old, and it hadn’t hired a woman for the psychology department in its existence,” she said. “A position in the psychology department opened up in my area, which I applied for. I was not hired.”

Her husband encouraged her to apply for jobs elsewhere, saying he would follow her. “That was very nontraditional for a man to follow his wife,” she said.

Coming in with a passion

Exposure to a STEM field before college was uncommon for women entering the class of 1965, but prior exposure often determined their choices of study, according to several alums. Though the women interviewed for this article derived their individual inspiration from a variety of sources, they all arrived on campus with a strong passion for science.

Zulette Masson Catir ’65 entered Pembroke eager to pursue physics.

“I was always interested in astronomy when I was a young kid, and when I was 13, I read about Albert Einstein and was just enamored with the idea of exploring the universe,” Catir said.

Catir was the only woman studying physics after her first year, which she said led her to feel “quite isolated.” As a result, and so she could take more liberal arts classes with women, Catir switched from pursuing a  bachelor of science to a bachelor of arts.

Even today, women are the recipients of fewer than 20 percent of all physics degrees nationwide, according to a study by the National Science Foundation.

Despite support from her mentor — former Professor of Physics John Dillon — Catir said she felt discouraged during her senior year. “I wasn’t sure I’d picked the right major,” she said. “Although I came in very inspired by physics, in the end I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”

After college, Catir became a teacher, then an educational consultant and later a therapist. “I wandered pretty far from physics,” she said.

Suzanne Love ’65, who received a bachelor of science in chemistry, was inspired to study the field of her father, who was a pharmaceutical chemist. “I heard a lot about chemistry from him and found it interesting,” she said.

She noted that there were more men than women in the chemistry program, but the number of concentrators was slim to begin with.

A Pembroke community

Until the merger in 1971, male and female students were split into two separate undergraduate colleges: Brown and Pembroke. With the exception of a few introductory courses, women and men took their classes together and received the same University degree upon graduation.

After World War II, the separation by sex effectively played a role only in housing and dining, but it shaped the female-centric Pembroke community, said Nancy Buc ’65, the third woman to serve on the Corporation’s Board of Fellows.

“There were some things that were Pembroke-specific. They tried to foster a sense of community in the residence halls,” Loggia said. Faculty members, along with their families, lived in the residence halls and were responsible for events such as Wednesday teas. “It was a community without the men, so it promoted a lot of friendship. But we had so many classes and other activities together that we didn’t feel like we were really segregated in any way.”

This Pembroke culture also encompassed academic attitudes.

Math and science concentrations were not popular among Pembroke students in part because of the barriers to entry. Students who chose to pursue STEM subjects had to know they wanted to do so upon matriculating because of the many degree requirements.

“In terms of the barriers historically, I think the cultural image of who becomes a scientist and who becomes an engineer when I was growing up in the 1950s was all male,” said Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70.

Miller listed the dearth of role models and social pressure as two issues women interested in STEM fields faced then and continue to face now. “When you find yourself in a class that is mostly male, it’s quite easy to get the impression that you don’t really belong there,” he said.

Aspiring female science students could look to Pembroke deans Nancy Duke Lewis, a mathematician, and Rosemary Pierrel Sorrentino PhD’53, an experimental psychologist, for inspiration, Buc said. At the time, administrative positions were more accessible to women than professor positions. It wasn’t until 1964 that Elizabeth Leduc, a pioneer in cell biology, was appointed the first female full professor in an academic department at the University.

Leduc was appointed director of biology in 1967, dean of biological sciences in 1973 and associate dean of the College in 1987. “She was a very distinguished leader in her field, and she was on the committee that recruited me for Brown,” said Susan Gerbi, professor of biochemistry and biology.

Gerbi said having female faculty members is essential for attracting more women to STEM, adding that many female scientists have male role models because there are so few female ones available. Leduc was an early leader in cultivating a more positive environment for women, she said.

“She hired several women in biology when it was uncommon — this did a lot for the climate at Brown,” said Kathryn Spoehr ’69, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and public policy.

Disparities within the sciences

Janet Blume, associate professor of engineering and senior associate dean of the faculty, said the life sciences achieved a “critical mass” of women more quickly than the physical sciences. They reached a point when there were enough women in the field that they did not feel isolated anymore.

In the physical sciences, the lack of such a critical mass can compound insecurities when a student is starting off, she said.“If somebody is unsure of herself, the feeling of being in the minority is not helpful and doesn’t build confidence.”

Barriers fell in the life sciences before the physical sciences because these disciplines “opened up to women first,” Miller said.

But while women studying life sciences often felt less isolated than their peers studying physical sciences, obstacles still readily presented themselves.

Judy Woll ’65 attended the Bronx High School of Science and was advised to apply to Pembroke by her guidance counselor. A pre-medical student, she started as a chemistry concentrator and switched to biology after taking the introductory courses during the City College of New York’s summer session.

“I went to a high school where girls were encouraged to do things like becoming a doctor, so it didn’t seem to be an unreasonable goal,” she said.

“In certain ways Brown was supportive of me, and in certain ways it wasn’t. It was still very sexist,” she said. “The first biology course I took was comparative anatomy. The class had over 100 students in it, of which fewer than 20 were girls.”

Most of the As in the class were awarded to female students, much to the professor’s dismay, Woll said, adding that “it killed him, and he said so out loud.” He also had to give an award to the best student in the class, and “it broke his heart that he had to give it to a woman, because she was the best in the class — he had no shame about saying things like that,” she added.

Susan Offner ’65, who also pursued an Sc.B. in biology, said she experienced this “critical mass” of women in the life sciences. “I had friends and people to study with. I studied with the guys some, but if I had been the only girl it would have been much less comfortable,” she said.

“We had all our classes at Brown, and that was what was really important,” she added. “There weren’t special dumbed-down classes for the girls. That was one of the big reasons I went to Brown and not to one of the Seven Sisters. The Ivies at that point were not accepting women, but the fact that we were going to classes with the guys was a really big deal.”

But while female participation in STEM fields has increased nationwide, the gap experienced in the 1960s remains to this day, and there are still significantly more women in the life sciences than physical sciences. According to the same NSF study, undergraduate women in 2012 received 58.2 percent of degrees in the biological sciences, compared to 43.1 percent in math, 19.2 percent in engineering and 18.2 percent in computer science.

“Your experiences are shaped by what you see,” said Sarah Delaney, associate professor of chemistry. “If a woman doesn’t see other women pursuing what she wants to pursue, she might get the idea that it’s not for her. If you look around and see people who are like you pursuing that field, it probably wouldn’t occur to you that it’s unusual that you’re pursuing this field.”

Spoehr said the effects of the various fields’ cultures tend to snowball. Because there are more female faculty members in the life sciences, “mentoring starts earlier, better and sooner, and the effects multiply,” she said, adding that this has been true since the 1960s.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of John Dillon. The article also misstated that Judy Woll ’65 attended Brown’s summer session. In fact, she attended the City College of New York’s summer session. The Herald regrets the errors.